This exhibition developed by the Royal Ontario Museum challenges preconceived notions of Blackness in Canada through the work of eight contemporary artists. In its presentation, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has added three Montreal artists. The artworks use current and historical objects, images and ideas to blur the longstanding perception that Black bodies belong on the edge of Canadian history. Though Canada is widely celebrated as a triumph of cultural diversity, dominant narratives have reduced the Black Canadian experience to one of an everlasting immigrant or newcomer. These artists question this by exposing deep historical traces of Black presence in our country. In presenting multiple voices and sensitivities, this exhibition disrupts simplistic and comforting narratives, while affirming the longstanding relevance of Black people to the fabric of Canada.
It is fitting that the exhibition title is borrowed from Sylvia D. Hamilton’s installation of video, sound, prints, objects and suspended twelve-foot wall scrolls. Her work reflects on the history of trade and slavery at the root of the Canadian colonial nation, and unveils simultaneously the material and ideological traces of anti-Black racism in Canada as well as the resilience of Black Canadians. A multimedia installation created by Chantal Gibson addresses the theme of erasure. More than 2,000 souvenir spoons painted black poetically evoke a collective historical experience of Blackness and the attempted reduction of this narrative into a pattern of sameness. Bushra Junaid uses a 1903 stereoview of children in a Caribbean sugarcane field. The work asks viewers to consider the ways in which Black subjects – in particular, children – have been represented historically and in the present. Sandra Brewster also based her work on an old photo, this one of the artist’s parents hiking together, monumentalized as giant figures overpowering the landscape. By oversizing this image, she challenges assumptions of Blackness, demonstrating the absurdity of the notion that the Black community is homogeneous.
The work of Charmaine Lurch captures a young girl’s expressions of joy and ease in the landscape. A purposeful line describes a fluidity of movement. The figure holds coded poses that mark a sense of belonging, while simultaneously conveying the struggle against being seen and not seen, understood and misunderstood in space and place, past and present. Michèle Pearson Clarke, in her three-channel video installation, focuses on sucking teeth – an everyday oral gesture shared by Black people across the Caribbean and its diaspora, including those who live here in Canada. The work is a response to the frustrations of living in the shadow of African-American Blackness, and an expression of the anger and pain that many Black Caribbean people often experience living in Canada, where they are always assumed to be better off, if not completely free of racism.
The painting of a young Black Canadian woman by Gordon Shadrach highlights the complex layering of historical, familial and self-chosen visual cues of the sitter’s identities through the codification of her clothing and accessories. As a self-fashioned icon, she represents the multiple facets of contemporary Black women. Also exploring the symbolism of clothing, Esmaa Mohamoud created a wearable sculpture and a monumental photograph that comment on the longer history of exploitation and social control of specifically Black male bodies, from the fields of slavery to the fields of athleticism. The work speaks to the endurance and resilience of the Black community.
Eddy Firmin, Manuel Mathieu and Shanna Strauss were chosen for the Montreal edition of the exhibition.
They offer a rich sampling of the vitality of contemporary artistic work in local Black communities. In his impactful self-portrait in thoughtfully ornamented ceramic, Eddy Firmin makes an uncomfortable connection between the slavery of the past and the slavery of today: overconsumption, a force that strips citizens of control of their lives and reduces them to consumers. Firmin hopes that the trauma experienced by the Black community in the past can inspire reflection on contemporary Canadian society. Shanna Strauss metaphorically represents her ancestor Leti, a larger than life woman who organized a rebellion in Tanzania against its German colonizers. This portrait preserves oral memory while reaffirming both the artist’s personal history and the important role that women played in the history of anticolonial struggle. Self-Portrait by painter Manuel Mathieu is a majestic work in memory of his grandmother, the first immigrant of the family to arrive in Montreal from Haiti.
Text: Julie Crooks, Dominique Fontaine, Silvia Forni and Geneviève Goyer-Ouimette
An exhibition developed by the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), Toronto, and adapted by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for the Montreal presentation. The curators are Dr. Julie Crooks, Assistant Curator, Art Gallery of Ontario, Dominique Fontaine, independent curator, and Dr. Silvia Forni, Curator of African Arts and Culture, ROM. Geneviève Goyer-Ouimette, Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Curator of Quebec and Canadian Contemporary Art (from 1945 to Today), MMFA, is the venue curator for the Montreal segment.
The exhibition is presented in Montreal thanks to the generous support of Stéphan Crétier and Stéphany Maillery. The Museum acknowledges the vital contribution of Air Canada, the Young Philanthropists’ Circle of the MMFA and its media partners: Bell, La Presse+ and the Montreal Gazette. The Museum extends its thanks to Quebec’s Ministère de la Culture et des Communications for its vital support, as well as to the Conseil des arts de Montréal and the Canada Council for the Arts for their ongoing support. The Museum would also like to thank its Volunteer Guides for their essential contribution, as well as all its members and the many individuals, corporations and foundations – in particular the Fondation de la Chenelière, directed by Michel de la Chenelière, and Arte Musica, presided over by Pierre Bourgie – for their generosity. We would also like to extend our gratitude to all those who, through their generous assistance, encouragement and support, made this exhibition possible.